Beneath Clouds is Ivan Senâs first full feature. It follows the journey of two teenagers, Lena and Vaughn, thrown together as their paths cross on the way to Sydney. They travel on foot along the roadside, not together but not alone. Barriers are drawn between the two, defensive lines laid, as the film progresses we sense a relationship start emerge between the two, a kind of unspoken affiliation, something which Sen rightly refuses to pursue at a romantic level. Although similar in its approach toward aboriginal comminutes from an adolescent perspective, this is all that can be drawn between Beneath Clouds and such films as Australian Rules and Rabbit Proof Fence, released at the same time.
Both Lena and Vaughn are of aboriginal descent, although Vaughnâs ethnicity is more apparent than Lenaâs. Lena leaves her hometown of Moree in an attempt to avoid the impending doom of teenage pregnancy, petty crimes and alcohol abuse which surrounds her. It is a debated topic whether Lena herself is actually pregnant, slight hints are given but these could also be seen as tedious connections. She heads off on the next bus to Sydney where she hopes to find her father, a white Irish man whom she has come to idealise over the years. She is ashamed of her aboriginal heritage, affiliating her identity more with white heritage. Vaughn is introduced to us from the confines of incarceration, where he has been for two years. A visit from his sister, delivering news of his motherâs ill health provokes Vaughn into escaping. He sneaks out of prison in a milk truck, heading back home to Sydney to see his dying mother one last time. Vaughn is an angry and hostile young man who blames white society for his lifestyle and situation. As Lenaâs bus drives off without her at a service stop, Vaughnâs milk truck pulls in. The pair swap glances and their relationship begins when Vaughn asks, "Which way to Sydney".
Essentially the film is about a boy and a girl, but without being the average teenage love story you might expect. Underneath the initial premise of adolescence lie themes of aboriginality, identity, youth culture, religion, spirituality and racism. The characters are real, they struggle with themselves and force us to struggle with them. To an extent, Sen acknowledges the film as a semi-autobiographical text. Like Lena his father is European and lives in Sydney. Lena yearns for the mossy hills of Ireland, Sen for the snow capped pine trees of Germany. Like Lena, Sen could pass for white, and often did. A denial of aboriginal heritage that he is now tormented by. In a sense Lena adopts the stance of the go-between, a much-used trait in Îaboriginalâ films. The Îhalf-casteâ serving the role of a person trapped between two cultures. Broaching issues concerning both social groups neatly for filmmakers. This is a tedious connection non-the less as Sen does not exploit Lenaâs character in this way. Yes she is part European but this is not the issue. Lena is trapped between denying the reality of her grim home life and living in the romanticised world of her Irish father. Her bedroom is littered with Irish culture; symbols of Christianity, The Tempest, photographs of Ireland and a green photo album, she adorns a Celtic necklace and ring. Lena is searching for another culture that is part of her blood, but something she doesnât really understand. She is looking in the wrong places to fill the gap she feels in her life. Sen stresses that the film is not just about the denial of aboriginal culture but about being young and wanting to get away from home (Sen et. al The Movie Show, SBS Radio).
Vaughnâs character is the embodiment of many of Senâs cousins who themselves grew up in remand centres and young offenders homes. As an indigenous person growing up Vaughn has become accustomed to being at the bottom of the pile. Whether he believes it or not he lives by the philosophy of Îno other choiceâ, that his life and all of the opportunities or lack of them are pre-determined according to his race. Something that although partially true but can be challenged and resisted, like Lena sees herself as attempting to do. Like Lena, Vaughn has conflicts with his identity. He does not embrace his aboriginal culture as something to be proud of, seeing it as a burden, something that has dragged him down. Instead he affiliates himself to the youth culture of America. The camera clearly focuses on a 2pac poster on his bedroom wall. A signifier of American gang culture, guns, drugs and rap music. Vaughn assimilates his dress sense to match this culture by adorning expensive sportswear.
Vaughn thinks Lena is white. She neither confirms nor denies this. This is an interesting plot device employed by Sen. Creating a discourse between black and white without the need for discussion. Vaughn is very bitter and resentful of the white mans ignorance yet he too is guilty of it. Vaughn and his Îcousinâsâ articulation of Irish culture as Îleprechaunsâ displays their own ignorance of other cultures. Vaughnâs attitude toward Lena when he assumes she is white speaks volumes of the social situation and aboriginal peopleâs perception of whiteness. One of the best lines in the whole film is when Vaughn says to Lena, "I never knew any white fellaâs before·not like you anyway".
Nature as a theme, and Vaughnâs connection to it, is a subtle yet successful device. It helps not only in the character development of Vaughn, making him more engaging for the audience but serves as recognition of aboriginality. Aboriginal people and their affiliation to land and nature although a misused stereotype does hold some partial truth. Therefore Sen demonstrates a slight nod to this without the usual fanfare. The tree that Vaughn nurtures and carves his name in, the horse in the meat truck that Vaughn is captivated by. Both are elements of nature with impending dooms, something Vaughn sees for himself. Interesting also is the dichotomy produced in this scene between Vaughn and the white men inside the pub. We sense a connection between Vaughn and the horse and inside the pub the white men are also engaging with horses on a very different level, horseracing on television. We also see three types of road kill in the film, a moth, a bird and then a fox strung over the signpost. It is clear the Sen wants us to acknowledge these.
The film guides us through the Australian landscape on the road from Moore to Sydney. From the outset location is established with great importance, a desolate place where things rarely stop, simply passing through on their way to somewhere else. Lena and Vaughn not only travel through the landscape but search for their place in it. If we consider the Australian landscape as, "a sense of space·a brittle horizontality and transparence·A life rhythm results from these facts and from the great distance to elsewhere" (Baxter et. al. Oâ Regan 1996: 208). We can best imagine what is captured in Beneath Clouds. Landscape provides a key into Australiaâs identity and is an integral part of Australian culture. Thus establishing Beneath Clouds as a truly Australian film. It also aids to provide an assertion of difference in the international market and marks Australian cinema as a national whole. Using the landscape to his advantage Senâs script is magnified through the intensity and desolation of the locations. The closer they get to Sydney the more urbanized the landscape becomes. Lena also has a preoccupation with Ireland and its countryside. Describing it to Vaughn as, "nothing like this shit, its misty, green, mountains everywhere, and no fuckin files". Later, Sen manipulates the Australian landscape to mimic Lenâs photographs of Ireland. Driving past a hill in the car which is green and misty whilst Lena is looking at her photographs its clear the juxtaposition of images that Senâs wants the viewer to engage with.
Stereotypically the road symbolises a journey, Beneath Clouds is no exception. Be it the simple path Lena and Vaughn follow to Sydney or the metaphorical journey they take into their identities along the way. Interestingly, the actual white lines running through the middle of the road were all fake. The main structure of the film is formed around the notion of the road and travel, this causes people to suggest Beneath Clouds is a road movie, much the same as Noyceâs, Rabbit Proof Fence was loosely characterised. Sen regards this with a slight unease. Although some of his inspiration for the flash focus footage in the film (when Lena is pulled into the car) came from the US road movie, Natural Born Killers. The first film heâd ever seen to use this technique on screen.
Lena and Vaughnâs environment rarely alters, when it does its often to hitch a ride in a car. Sen sees these different cars as representative of different cultures which Lena and Vaughn enter into. These scenes also serve to break up the monotony of the long road, which is otherwise uneventful. They display the different reactions of various social groups to Lena and Vaughn, for example, a white women who stops drives off as soon as she sees Vaughn. Or the young aboriginal people on their way to work who protect Vaughn from the police without even knowing him or if it was him. Police vehicles are also placed throughout the film to highlight the different attitudes of societal hierarchy towards aboriginal and white people. For example the only car Lena and Vaughn donât get stopped by the police in is the white mans car, although we clearly see a police vehicle drive straight past them.
Sen, like many in his field is constantly faced with the classification of an Îaboriginal artistâ, something he is not comfortable with. With this tag comes an unspoken obligation toward doing the right thing, using your window of opportunity too properly represent aboriginality. Although conscious of what has come before him and what surrounds him, Sen is more concerned with telling stories and dealing with charters than with portraying social problems in his work. Critics have alluded to a sense of disappointment toward the lack of issues concerning indigenous culture in Beneath Clouds. This seems unfounded as Sen tackles his subject matter with intelligence and wit. Not compelled toward rehashing every socio-political problem facing the aboriginal community. Sen resists using his two characters as a mouthpiece to prescribe political stances and conclusions to the audience. He treats the audience with intelligence allowing them to engage with the issues raised and make their own conclusions. It is an assumed intelligence rather than a prescription of ignorance. Many films have come before Sen and dealt with such issues of assimilation and land rights and although Sen doesnât disregard the importance of this he also recognises the need to progress. Audiences and film makers are ready for new approaches, ones that arenât so predictable, something Sen is all to willing to give. Importantly he raises the issues future politics and reconciliation.
His hints toward aboriginal culture and history are subtle but do not go unnoticed. ÎItâs not your land, you stole it", links Vaughn to his acknowledgement of a colonial past and land rights, recognising the problems of history but with the recognition that there are more present issues to deal with. Lena makes comments that enforce her Îwhitenessâ to Vaughn such as, Îyouâll end up like the rest of them", alluding to the racism and prejudice she herself is witness to. A boy sketching aboriginal drawings, recognition that there is a culture there but with no real need to brandish it full screen. It is an assumed normality rather than a proclamation of difference. Lena and Vaughn discuss stolen land and the spirituality of Europeans (Stone Henge). The film is littered with examples of this kind. Passing comments or slight association which all allude to some form of discourse. Whether we choose to acknowledge and engage with them is not for Sen to decide.
The film is a very still, simple and quiet composition exploding with emotion and expression. On first glance there may appear to be a lack of dialogue but Îactions speak louder than wordsâ, and this is definitely the case for Beneath Clouds. Lena and Vaughn develop a relationship out of unspoken affinity. Slight looks, nods and expressions give much in the way of how they feel about each other and convey the characters emptiness. Both accustomed to living on the defensive, it takes a while to break away from this mentality. We are forced to engage and feel for and with these characters, we can only but try and visualise, understand the emotionally blockage inside of them. Stillness, the central catalyst of emotion in the film, has come under much scrutiny. Critics accusing Sen of avoiding dialogue which his first time actors may not be able to handle. In fact what Hall and Pitt achieve is something much more than this, the ability to convey intense emotion without dialogue is an impressive feat for even experienced actors. The fact that Hall was nominated for so many awards, and won some of them in competition with established actors such as Judy Davis and Nicole Kidman is tribute to this.
The overall look of the film is outstanding. Senâs earlier training as a photographer is clearly visible. Every single shot is beautiful, sharp, crisp, and precise. The framing, timing, colour, everything is arranged perfectly. Very fast film infused with lots of light creates the crispness Sen visualised. Often focusing on sensitive details which transfers to the audience and dialogue. This also adds the films overall sense of reality, it demands attention. Sen describes the relationship between himself and the cinematographer, Allen Collins as, "organic and natural" (SBS Radio interview). He and Collins have the same vision, both see things in the same way. What Collins shoots is exactly how Sen himself would do it. Choosing to use much of the same production team as worked on his previous shorts, Sen attributes the success of Beneath Clouds to the team as a whole. "Were like family·I donât have to give a big speech about my vision for the film because they already know it and feel it·itâs a natural process, where we weâve already worked together and developed a certain style" (Sen et. al The Movie Show, SBS Radio). Beneath Clouds was in fact developed out of Senâs 1998 short Tears. Sen also frequently collaborates with musician Allister Spence in creating the musical scores for his work. Sen is keen to emphasise the importance of music to his work. For Beneath Clouds, much of the inspiration for the characters, their relationships and emotional disposition came from music. Often creating the music before the characters themselves.
Sen sees Beneath Clouds as a "culmination and a conclusion to his long held concern with his mixed heritage and notions of cultural identity" (Naglazas 2002). He intends to make his next few films in the US. This shows Senâs willingness to broach out into the international market. He is quick to add though, that this isnât the end of his Australia productions altogether. His approach, he says, is much like that of Luhrmann or Proyas, who bring the money of the American market back to Australia. "Iâd like to make some decent money, without selling my soul" (I. Sen et. al. R. Hessey 2002:45-46).
Beneath Clouds is a successful and intelligent exploration into issues surrounding aboriginality within Australia. Although many aboriginal films were prominent in the festival circuit in the same year of release, Beneath Clouds shone above them. For its subtle nature and endearing realism. Sen's approach to the subject gives great hope and optimism for future of Australian filmmaking.